The war over solar: As major ruling looms in Nevada, here are key factors

Solar supporters hold signs during a rally in front of Public Utilities Commission offices Wednesday, Jan 13, 2016.

Wearing “Bring Back Solar” shirts and holding signs with slogans like “Solar is Life,” dozens of SolarCity employees turned out for a hearing Monday in which they urged utility regulators to reconsider the scope of a controversial decision to increase energy bills for customers.

The hearing, held by the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada, was fueled by high emotions and involved issues so complex that the session lasted well over 12 hours and ended around midnight.

At issue: the commission's recent decision to raise a fixed fee for solar customers and slash the value of credits ratepayers can earn for generating excess electricity under a program known as net metering. It applied the rates to all customers, including early adopters of solar power systems.

In the coming days, the commission is expected to rule on several appeals to revisit the rates, including requests to grandfather existing solar customers.

Citing the bill increase, solar companies halted sales here, which resulted in the relocation and layoffs of hundreds of employees. Rooftop solar advocates also have criticized the quasi-judicial commission, calling for removal of the three commissioners, who continue to consider the matter. Roughly 17,000 customers who installed solar panels before the decision and were counting on the lower bills to pay back sizable investments now face higher bills than they expected.

As many as 1,000 people are expected to be on hand Friday, when the commission is expected to issue its ruling. Here are some of the key factors going into the meeting:

The parties are generally in agreement, but a key one is not

The regulatory operations staff, which acts independently in each proceeding but makes recommendations to the commission, opposes grandfathering. Staff argues that it is not in the public interest. Staff also believes that groups of solar customers should not be treated differently. Letting some customers keep the old rates but requiring others to pay new rates would create two classes, something usually avoided in utility regulation, staff argues.

But NV Energy, solar advocates and the Bureau of Consumer Protection, which represents the interests of all ratepayers, are all generally in agreement. Those parties support letting existing customers keep the more advantageous rate structure for at least 20 years.

A critical question: Who is an "existing customer"?

NV Energy recommended that the commission use Sept. 10 as a cutoff date. So only those who installed solar panels or applied to install rooftop solar before Sept. 10 would qualify for the prior rates. Why a seemingly arbitrary mid-September date? According to NV Energy, Sept. 10 is the date of the last application to qualify for net metering before it hit a maximum customer cap.

The Bureau of Consumer Protection and solar advocates have argued for a Dec. 31 cutoff date, contending that the new rates — which went into effect on Jan. 1 — should only apply to customers who have gone solar since the start of the year.

Who can be trusted?

Both sides would have you believe their facts and figures.

The Bureau of Consumer Protection has questioned the very basis for the rates, a cost of service study conducted by NV Energy. At the same time, NV Energy and the commission have accused solar advocates of using a separate study to overstate the net benefits of solar.

There are also accusations about whether NV Energy and solar companies intentionally spread misleading information. Solar customers in Clark County are suing NV Energy with allegations it fed the commission false information. At the same time, solar customers in Northern Nevada are suing SolarCity, a national rooftop installer, with claims that it failed to disclose information about the potential for rates to increase.

As they say, the first casualty of war is the truth.

Public pressure is mounting

“All right, green army. Let’s get riled up.”

That was what one solar advocate said before a rally at the commission's Las Vegas location on Monday, part of a public campaign to reverse the rate decision. The solar industry has made its dissatisfaction well known to the commission. So many that when solar advocates gave public comment at a meeting several weeks ago, the start time was pushed back at least six hours.

And on Monday, solar advocates arrived with wheelbarrows full of signatures supporting a proposed ballot measure meant to restore the old rates. The same alliance behind the measure announced an ad buy of at least $250,000 for a commercial that will run on TV and digital.

When will the ruling occur?

The commission is scheduled to rule on the issue Friday. That would require the commissioner presiding over the case to issue a draft proposal Wednesday or Thursday. But given the close proximity to Monday’s daylong meeting, it’s possible the commissioner won’t have enough time to draft an order, an often lengthy document. If that is the case, the commission could move to delay the decision until next week and still meet a fast approaching deadline to rule on the appeals.